Western Hemisphere Intelligence Brief

Issue 223: July 13, 2015

Mexico: Fallout from El Chapo Escape
Colombia: Peace Negotiations Back on Track–But for How Long? 

 

Mexico

For the second time in 14 years, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, leader of the powerful Sinaloa drug cartel, has escaped from a maximum security prison in Mexico. … In 2014, Mexican authorities apprehended El Chapo in his home state of Sinaloa after a thirteen-year manhunt. …  Asked at the time whether he could guarantee that the kingpin would this time remain behind bars, President Enrique Peña Nieto said it would be “unforgivable” if another escape took place and that it was the “government’s obligation to stop this from happening again”. …  Barely a year and a half later, El Chapo escaped from El Altiplano, one of Mexico’s most secure prisons, through an elaborate tunnel thirty feet beneath the ground and almost a mile long. … Guzmán was believed to head a business empire that accounted for an estimated one quarter of the illegal narcotics shipped to the U.S. … President Peña Nieto is currently on a state visit in France, where he has decided to remain despite the dramaticannouncement of the escape. … Mexican Interior Secretary, Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong, who was also traveling with the President, returned to Mexico to oversee the situation. … As Interior Secretary, Osorio Chong will have to answer for how one of Mexico’s most dangerous drug kingpins was able to escape without any detection in an operation that likely stretched over months. … The escape catalyzed debate in Mexico and the United States over Mexico’s commitment to the drug war and the debilitating impact of entrenched corruption throughout the security, judicial, and penal sectors. … Likewise, it has revived debate over extraditions to the United States of high-profile drug capos that proved so successful under Plan Colombia. … Under Peña Nieto, Mexico has significantly decreased the number of extraditions that was a staple of his predecessor, President Felipe Calderón. … According to reports, extraditions from Mexico to the U.S. dropped from 115 in 2012, Calderón’s final year, to 66 in 2014. …As one expert told Forbes, however, El Chapo‘s escape “sends the message that the prison system is broken when the highest-security facility can’t hold the highest-profile convict.”

 

  • El Chapo‘s  escape is a huge embarrassment to Peña Nieto, who entered office promising a more sophisticatedsecurity strategy to confront the drug cartels responsible for the deaths of more than 100,000 Mexican since 2006.  With his popularity already suffering due to a sagging economy, the last fight the President needed at this point was about the war against transnational criminal organizations and U.S.-Mexico cooperation in that effort.  Moreover, it overwhelms his desire to change the face of Mexico from one of drugs and criminality to one of business and investment opportunity.  More specifically, it brings the president unwanted conversation about the pervasivenessof corruption in Mexico.  For the second time, El Chapo has shown that Mexican institutions are no match for the powerof the drug capos.  The elaborate escape not only required help from prison officials, but also necessitated detailed plans of the prison and classified information about the security systems in and outside the prison, information which could have only been obtained from sources within Mexico’s security apparatus.  An investigation will no doubt be conducted, but is unlikely to expose the extent of the conspiracy.  The bottom line is that El Chapo‘s escape demonstrates that Mexico’s security strategy, not to mention the President’s ambitious domestic reform agenda, are unlikely to achieve their full measure of success without a systematic effort to depress current levels of corruption.  Political will from President Peña Nieto’s administration will be as paramount as ever to restore confidence in his ability to govern.  In remaining in France and not returning to Mexico, President Peña Nieto appears to be trying to downplay the significance of the news of the escape.  It is a gamble he may soon regret taking.

 

Colombia

Peace negotiations between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (known by its Spanish acronym FARC) appear to be back on track for the time being after both sides agreed to “de-escalate” a renewed round of military attacks. … However, the damage to the already tenuous public support for the process may be irreparable, after the FARC violated the last de facto truce in mid-April by ambushing a Colombian military patrol that left a dozen soldiers dead. … That prompted a renewed government military offensive, which in turn led to a number of FARC attacks against critical infrastructure and the oil industry, the latter which caused the spilling of some 400,000 gallons of crude oil into local rivers and forests. … The increased violence led the international aid organization, Doctors Without Borders, to declare a humanitarian crisis in southwestern Colombia. … As a result, the Colombian public, already suspicious of the FARC and its intentions, turned even more harshly against President Juan Manuel Santos’ efforts to reach a peace agreement. … A recent poll by Datexco found that 78% of Colombians disagree with the way Santos is conducting the peace process and 75% don’t believe that a peace agreement with the FARC will be reached. … In reaction to the overwhelmingly negative public opinion, the FARC reversed course on July 8 and announced a renewed unilateral ceasefire, which it had violated in April. … President Santos then reciprocated by announcing a “de-escalation of military actions,” if the FARC held to its own declared cease-fire. … This past Sunday, President Santos addressed the country’s lack of confidence in the peace negotiations, saying that in four monthshe would decide whether or not to continue the negotiations. … Although some are praising the new ceasefire and de-escalation announcements, others like Colombian Senator Alfredo Rangel remain highly skeptical, given the long history of broken ceasefires by the FARC. … “The unilateral truce is a farce (…),” he said. “The guerrillas will take advantage of the situation to continue committing crimes, continue trafficking drugs, increase its rearmament , recruitment and strengthening throughout the country.”

     

  • The most salient point resulting from the latest de facto truce in Colombia is not that the FARC has announced another unilateral cease-fire, but that the Colombian government readily acceded to their own – once again placing it in the position of appearing to grant the concession by giving the FARC yet another chance to prove its interest in a negotiated solution.  For President Santos, it only enhances public perceptions that he is being taken advantage of by the FARC and by Cuba and Venezuela, which are “observers” of the process and no friends of Colombia.  Many believe that in so openly identifying the peace negotiations with his legacy, the President has weakenedhis hand, while strengthening that of the FARC at the negotiating table.  Perhaps Santos, reputedly a savvy poker player, knows he has the strong hand, and continues trying to lure the FARC commanders into a bet they cannot win.  But, in this, his enemy is not the devious FARC, but time.  After more than two years of talks, he has yet to convince the Colombian people that the current negotiations are in the national interest. Although a respite from the violence is certainly welcome for Colombian citizens often caught in the crossfire between government troops and the FARC, it hardly is a bet on which to place their future.  What it means for the present is that the parties return to the negotiating table without any agreement yet on the only issues that matter: the disarming and demobilization of FARC guerrillas.  The Colombian people are demanding no less than surrender and full accountability for FARC leaders for their decades of criminality.  Achieving those objectives remains the make-or-break challenge of the negotiations.

 

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